Saturday, May 23, 2020

Giovanni's Room (1956) by James Baldwin. COVID-19 Recreational Reading

Giovanni's Room (1956) by James Baldwin. COVID-19 Recreational Reading

Earlier this year I read Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son (1955, see earlier post) for the first time. A portion of that collection of autobiographical essays deals with Baldwin's reflections on Paris (where he had moved in the late 1940s). After finishing that non-fiction volume, I added Giovanni's Room to my list (which I had first read back in the 1980s/90s). In Giovanni's Room, Baldwin explores gender and sexuality through the lens of David, an American expatriate in 1950s France. Trapped between his alienation from his American birthplace and his identification by those in his Parisian milieu as an "American", David also struggles with the nature of his sexuality. When his fiancé Hella leaves for Spain to evaluate her relationship with David, he falls into a relationship with a bartender, Giovanni, himself an Italian expatriate. Moving in with Giovanni, David remains conflicted about his feelings. When Hella returns, David makes a painful choice that leads to tragedy. Set primarily in the Left Bank neighborhoods of the 6th and 14th Arrondissements (Montparnasse and Saint-Germain-des-Prés, home to artists and writers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Man Ray, and Samuel Beckett), Giovanni's Room is also an encomium from an American to Paris. As Hella tells David:
"Americans should never come to Europe,” she said, and tried to laugh and began to cry, “it means they never can be happy again. What’s the good of an American who isn’t happy? Happiness was all we had.” 


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